The ILB position has been the focus of many fans and Raiders coaches alike for almost two seasons. When the team brought in Perry Riley Jr last season, he seemed to fill a need while also providing veteran leadership. Fast forward to this offseason when Riley was a free agent and not resigned by the team. Most, me included, expected the Raiders to sign a veteran free agent or bolster the position in the draft.
When the draft came and went, we were left with one draft pick that would fill that need. That player came with the 168th pick in the 5th round by the name of Marquel Lee out of Wake Forest. While Lee is a solid addition with a high motor and elite athleticism, he is still a rookie and has a hard time reading and reacting to plays, relying on his athleticism to make up the difference. He also struggles with shedding blocks and keeping ball carriers in front of him. These deficiencies can be overcome, but asking a rookie to buck the norm and perform at an elite level, especially if that rookie came in the 5th round, is asking a bit much.
In addition to the draft, the Raiders only additions had come with Jelani Jenkins, a free agent from Miami, and a few undrafted free agents. When the final cut down of the preseason came, it was again expected that the team would add some waiver wire talent at the LB position. Again, we were let down as it seems the team wanted to see more of the young linebackers and elected not to add any veteran talent at the cut down. It was a rough preseason for the linebackers and it looked to be the same for the upcoming season. It’s enough for anyone to write off the linebackers and hope their shortcomings don’t derail a promising season.
In Week 1, Marquel Lee, Tyrell Adams and Nicholas Morrow saw 41, 21 and 4 plays respectively, for the defense. But it was another ILB that showed a glimmer of what the defense could be. A slight glimpse of a possible mainstay in the middle of the field. A pick that came an entire round later than Lee did the year before. That player was taken with the 194th pick of the 6th round after playing his college ball with Colorado State.
James had a promising preseason, but missed some time with an undisclosed injury, so expectations were tempered. Then came Week 1, and James was announced as a starter. While his stats at the finish of the game won’t blow you away (1 solo tackle and 3 assisted) it was his presence in the middle that was inspiring.